The reason Susan Johnson’s Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before worked so well is because it had such a distinct hook: hopeless-romantic high-school student Lara Jean (Lana Condor) panics when five deliberately unsent love letters she wrote over the years wind up getting mailed to their recipients. In order to save face with her current crush (who happens to be her older sister’s boyfriend!), she strikes up a fake-dating deal with one of those old crushes, kind-hearted jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), and after some rom-com-level misunderstandings, they end up dating for real.
It’s a unique premise, held up by its central couple’s endearing chemistry. But without the magnetic hook of those love letters, the To All the Boys sequels — directed by Michael Fimognari — haven’t been nearly as charming. While they contain individual sweet moments, they don’t have the same fun setup of the original. They feel more like the audience is just checking in on the characters instead of standing by them during particularly interesting dramas of their lives.
The final film in the trilogy, To All the Boys: Always and Forever, epitomizes that feeling. While the movie contains some genuine heartfelt moments, the thread connecting them all is flimsy, and the core conflict is overdone. By focusing on a clichéd dilemma and doing nothing to make it particularly unique, Always and Forever concludes the trilogy on a flat note.
[Ed. Note: This review contains some spoilers for To All the Boys: Always and Forever.]
Based on the final book in Jenny Han’s trilogy, the movie follows Lara Jean and Peter’s last few months of high school, as they wait to hear back from their respective college choices. Peter got into California’s Stanford University on a lacrosse scholarship, and they’re both hoping Lara will get in as well, so they don’t have to maintain a long-distance relationship. But during a senior trip to New York City, Lara Jean falls in love with NYU, and must figure out whether she wants to pursue her dreams across the country, or stay close to Peter.
Oh yeah, and also — Lara Jean and her sisters deal with her father’s remarriage; Peter navigates his relationship with his distant father; and Lara Jean and the rest of her eclectic classmates participate in all the activities senior year has to offer. This extra fluff ends up dragging the movie down, drawing focus away from the central conflict and ultimately doing Lara Jean’s character a big disservice.
The biggest problem in the movie is that it doesn’t really add anything refreshing to the muddled, overdone conflict of High School Sweetheart vs. College Aspirations. In fact, Always and Forever somehow manages to make both choices seem bland and unappealing. Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship is stronger than it was in the second movie, but moments of weirdly fabricated conflict (she somehow accidentally lies about getting into Stanford and just… does not tell him for weeks) don’t really make the case for them staying together.
At the same time, it’s hard to buy Lara Jean’s dreams and aspirations with so little to go off. When she becomes smitten with New York City, it’s because of a single dreamy view of the Empire State Building and a late-night subway caper. Certainly she’s a romantic, and idealizing New York City in film has been done with less. But in this film, her internal struggle is based on goals the previous movies never even hinted she had.
Beyond a single conversation where Lara Jean mentions possibly getting internships at NYC publishing houses, the audience never actually gets a sense of what she wants out of NYU. If the movie bolstered Lara Jean’s inner life, the conflict would be richer and actually have stakes. But instead of focusing on how she discovers her passions and goals, while struggling to figure out what that means in a world where Peter is not just a drive away, the extra scenes detract from the core struggle, and don’t quite fit in with the movie’s overall mood.
The To All the Boys series does manage to capture sweet moments of high-school romance that aren’t entirely unrealistic. That, coupled with some genuinely wholesome family moments, became the heart of the first film. But while it’s endearing to watch Peter fumble with a Korean face mask while enthusiastically squealing about the character socks Lara Jean brought back from her spring break in Korea (also shown via a series of brief, yet delightful snapshots of family together), these scenes don’t further the plot. They’re brief moments of comfort that hit pause on the main conflict, and sometimes feel like they’re from a different movie entirely.
In the end, the best thing that can be said about Always and Forever is that it’s a beautiful collection of snapshots. The bright interior sets, such as Lara Jean’s room, her family home, and the diner she and Peter frequent, create an atmospheric evolution of the everyday, showing how even the most mundane settings can look warm and beautiful in Lara Jean’s romantic eyes. The moments she has not just with Peter, but with her family and friends, are similarly tender. In that vein, these individual scenes almost coalescence into a reflection on change at the end of senior year.
When it comes to that bittersweetness, the movie does well looking into the past, and considering what Lara Jean has to lose when moving on from her home and Peter. But it does very little in the way of looking forward and giving her anything of her own to stand on. This trilogy-closer suggests Lara Jean is fixated on her past relationships, so thoroughly that it’s hard to buy that she even wants to move forward to the future.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever is now available to stream on Netflix.